A Festival of Dance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

June 15, 2018
WOMEN / CREATE! Program:
Armitage Gone! Dance: Donkey Jaw Bone (preview)
Jennifer Muller / The Works: Shock Wave (world premiere)
Buglisi Dance Theatre: Threshold
Carolyn Dorfman Dance: Waves

— by Jerry Hochman

Together, Karole Armitage, Jennifer Muller, Jacqulyn Buglisi, and Carolyn Dorfman have 142 years of choreographic experience, give or take. So it wasn’t at all surprising that their joint program at New York Live Arts, under the umbrella heading Women / Create!, which I saw on the penultimate evening of its run, featured dances – one by each choreographer – that were accomplished examples of choreographic craft.

The strangest dance of the evening was the opening piece, Armitage’s Donkey Jaw Bone, performed by six members of her company, Armitage Gone! Dance (“AG!D”). It’s tempting to simply acknowledge Donkey Jaw Bone and move on, since it’s specifically referenced as a “preview” and consequently is subject to modification before the formal premiere. But with that caveat in mind I’ll discuss the piece anyway, because as presented it looks neither unfinished nor excerpted. On the contrary, the dance appears to be as polished as it can be absent major, and unwarranted, restructuring of the concept as a whole.

I disliked Donkey Jaw Bone initially because of that concept. Its subject, or, more accurately, its object of attention, is a form of Mexican professional wrestling known as “Lucha Libre,” which is described in the program note as sitting “at the border of sport, dance, and ritual.” All those qualities are present in the dance, but the dominant feature of Donkey Jaw Bone to me, at least at its outset, is explicit aggression and implicit violence. I have a difficulty with presentations that appear to be gratuitously violent, which I felt was the case here (it wasn’t a story after all; it was an exposition), and the fact that this piece was choreographed by a woman didn’t make it any less distasteful. The further fact that the four men in the piece were outfitted in face-covering masks and costumes calculated to increase the appearance of ferocity (perhaps the visual equivalent of trash talk), and that at various points some of the men intentionally moved effeminately, gave the piece a more offensive edge and made it even more repellant.

That all these qualities – the aggression, the masks, the stylized movement, the drag-queen / effeminate references (which seem antithetical to the culturally prevalent Mexican machismo, but which are nevertheless welcomed in this context), the good guys, the bad guys, the female wrestlers (two of the six dancer/wrestlers are women) — are all real components of Lucha Libre didn’t change that impression. And the fact that athletic contests can be viewed as a form of dance movement is neither original nor particularly illuminating.

But after awhile, and abetted by a reference in the program note, I began to appreciate Donkey Jaw Bone intellectually, even if I couldn’t bring myself to love it.

The masks used in Lucha Libre are reportedly derived from pre-Columbian sources (Aztec), and even though I disliked their ferocity, that’s their point. But Armitage goes beyond this: she plays on this connection by using traditional pre-Columbian music and instruments – mostly percussive, but also a jarana (a guitar-like instrument) and a quijada (a donkey jaw bone), which makes a fascinating sound as the musician scrapes across it either with a finger or the equivalent of a pick (I couldn’t tell). [Such instruments may have been used as accompaniment to Lucha Libre matches, but my understanding is that the accompanying music now prevalent is contemporary, ranging from techno to rap.]

The two musicians sit stage right of the action, but eventually, at certain points in the dance, shadow the dancer/wrestlers as if to emphasize the direct connection between these percussive, primitive, tribal sounds and the essence of Lucha Libre – even though Lucha Libre was not created in something resembling its present form until the late 19th Century, and didn’t explode as a cultural phenomenon until the mid-20th Century. The use of these pre-Columbian instruments gives the sport the gravitas it might not otherwise have, even if the connection is indirect, and delivers the same sense of increased significance to the dance. Indeed, the piece’s title suggests that celebrating the pre-Columbian connection and ambiance rather than the sport of Lucha Libre itself may have been Armitage’s real motivation in creating the dance.

Donkey Jaw Bone also “draws from” (per the program note) George Balanchine’s Agon, a ballet that I’ve also grown to appreciate rather than love. Agon means “contest,” but Balanchine’s piece uses the idea of a contest as a rough framework within which various historical dance forms are presented as components of the abstract ballet. What Armitage has done is essentially the same, but instead of somewhat esoteric dance forms, she uses various stylized components (action sequences, like mini-matches, complete with referees) from Lucha Libre. Even the structure of the dance, except for the opening introduction of the dancer/wrestlers, appears somewhat similar – from the wrestling “dance segments,” to having the dancer/wrestlers not involved in the featured “wrestling/combat” segments prance around the perimeter of the action “warming up” for their turn, in the process presenting as a supporting corps, to the “grand finale” when all the dancer/wrestlers come together. Indeed, at one point she briefly quotes Agon by having the four men evenly spaced and spread horizontally across the stage.

Obviously, the greater the distance that I was able to draw between Donkey Jaw Bone and the aggressive sport of Lucha Libre, the more I grew to appreciate what Armitage created.

If nothing else, Donkey Jaw Bone is certainly different and interesting. The six stellar AG!D dancers were Megumi Eda and Sierra French (both women coming across as vicious and combative as the men, but without the masks), Ahmaud Culver, Alonso Guzman, Cristian Laverde-Koenig, and Yusaku Komori.

Jennifer Muller’s Shock Wave isn’t nearly as unusual a piece. In the program note, Muller makes a great deal of the physics of a shock wave (“a cataclysmic disturbance, characterized by destructive interference and abrupt, nearly discontinuous change”), and in the dance uses a “shock wave’ of sorts – a loud, crashing sound that, unfortunately, doesn’t sound nearly as cataclysmic as it’s supposed to – as a symbolic representation of societal disruption by an unexpected event.

Nothing about Shock Wave is objectionable: the commissioned score by composer/cellist Gordon Withers is appropriately stark, doleful, moving, and ultimately uplifting; the costumes (designed by Martin Izquierdo and Stageworks) and the lighting (designed by Jeff Croiter) are simple and uncomplicated but highly expressive; and Muller’s choreography clearly traces the subject matter from initial apprehension to cataclysm to survival and recovery in a form that’s at once appropriately tentative, somewhat angular at times, but primarily lyrical, with a variety of focal points and changing dancer compositions that maintain visual interest.

But there really isn’t anything new here. Ultimately, Shock Wave is a stereotypical “something awful happens but humanity will survive” dance, distinguished by the sensitivity of its stagecraft and choreography, its music, and the execution by the highly capable Jennifer Muller/The Works dancers (which, admittedly, is no small accomplishment).

I suspect that Muller intended to make a dance commentary on “real” unexpected and cataclysmic social events rather than on a sudden physical (as in physics) event. But if that is the case, then something more illustrative of political or societal change, something evidencing unexpected and coercive dictatorial action resulting in societal upheaval, something more clearly connected to current events, for example, might have been necessary. Symbolism is fine, and subtlety is usually admirable, but if that type of commentary was her goal, Shock Wave just isn’t shocking enough, and nowhere near as shocking as reality.

What was shocking, but in a non-specific way, was Buglisi’s Threshold. Created in 1991, Threshold is a duet, but it’s so filled with dramatic tension that it might as well have been performed by a cast of thousands.

I remember Buglisi from performances with the Joyce Trisler Danscompany in the 1970s at Riverside Church. One of the dances I vividly recall seeing was Trisler’s Four Against the Gods, a takeoff on the celebrated Romantic ballet Pas de Quatre, in which, instead of performing in, and celebrating, the styles of four renowned 19th Century ballerinas, the dancers performed in and celebrated the styles of four female modern dance icons. Buglisi danced in the style of Martha Graham – and her performance enabled me to recognize, back in those early dance-going days, that I could recognize distinctive styles.

Buglisi later went on to become a member of Graham’s company, and subsequently to co-found Buglisi Dance Theatre (which includes many former Graham Company dancers). Not surprisingly, Threshold is to a large extent indebted to Graham. It looks, at least initially, somewhat like a horizontal version of Graham’s landmark Lamentation, and it has a similar sense of the individual and the universal, and of emotions powering movement. Buglisi takes this a step further: in Threshold, the emotions on display are somehow epic.

Describing Threshold cannot fully relate its power. As the music (Arvo Part’s Fratres and Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten) begins, the audience sees a figure struggling within the confines of a rectangular swash of yielding fabric that had been taped to the stage floor. The sensation is of a body attempting to escape from a grave, or from some sort of cocoon. Eventually, appendage by appendage, the body (performed by the extraordinary Virginie Mécène) does escape, and is joined by a male (an heroically desperate Kevin Predmore) who emerges from the wings – as I recall, on all fours. Together they navigate the stage, mutually dependent and in emotional and physical agony, with tinges of exhilaration somehow embedded – but quickly stifled. And even though I knew it was coming (it had to), its ending was still shocking.

I don’t know exactly what Threshold is “about.” Logically, it’s about the woman’s death for some unspecified reason (war or some other act of violence; the death of a child; some apocalyptic event) and the man’s hopeless effort to reclaim her – but the dance allows for far more interpretations than that (e.g., it evidences a threshold to, or from, something; an entryway that closes, or perhaps opens onto something or somewhere else, perhaps a different memory, or a different lifetime). It perfectly mirrors the finality of loss and hopelessness, and the persistence of memory and hopefulness, evident in Part’s music. But the choreographic intimacy and complexity that explodes within Threshold’s confined stage space has a far more cosmic significance, even if words do not enable me to describe what that significance is.  Simply put, Threshold is a monumental work of choreographic art.

Not all dances have to have a subject of cosmic significance or relate anything more than visual pleasure, and after Threshold’s intensity, Dorfman’s Waves was a welcome respite that sent the audience home with a smile.

Waves, which Dorfman created in 2015, is about … waves. If it has significance beyond that – and beyond creating interesting visual patterns and movement that relates to “waves” – it escaped me.

All of us have seen choreographed “waves,” whether at a dance performance or a sporting event (though I suspect not at Lucha Libre), but the multiplicity of forms that Dorfman creates – starting off slowly but culminating in wave crescendos – is illuminating. And the waves aren’t simply wave-like sequential movement – these wave patterns have a variety of tempo and composition that maintains visual interest and that go beyond the sense of waves per se.

Indeed, the piece begins with a wave, if there is one, that’s confined to the internalized movement of one woman (Katlyn Waldo) – and her shadow projected against the backstage wall. Subsequently, a sole male dancer (Brandon Jones) responded to the waves of music with movement that seemed more outer-directed. [The commissioned score, including vocalizations, was composed by Pete List, Jessie Reagen Mann, and Daphna Mor.]

As the dance proceeds, the presentation becomes increasingly complex, and increasingly playful (at various points the dancers “blow” waves of air at each other), with combinations of dancers being lifted and tossed and turned in wave patterns not immediately recognizable, but they’re there. At times it was pedestrian; at times it was exhilarating, but Waves was always fun to watch. And the eclectic but engaging dancers seemed to be having as much fun as the audience. In addition to Waldo and Jones, they included Caroline Dietz, Justin Dominic, a particularly effervescent and luminous Lara Friedman-Kats, Jenny Gillan-Powell (who communicated a sense of sophistication and sangfroid that distinguished her from the others), Quinton Guthier, Elise Pacicco, Eric Parra, and Marie Lloyd Paspe.

If the program’s title was intended to capitalize on the current attention given to previously underrepresented women choreographers, what it did was actually the opposite – it demonstrated that women choreographers, at least in the realm of modern/contemporary dance, have been choreographing and creating for a long time. But if its purpose was to draw attention to the notion that women choreographers can indeed create interesting dances, Women / Create! succeeded very well. I look forward to the program’s next annual incarnation.